We depend upon nonprofit organizations to be part of the community building equation. From addressing challenging issues like hunger and affordable housing to providing activities such as arts festivals and youth sports, we turn to the nonprofit sector to contribute to our quality of life. Therefore, it’s important that nonprofits participate in community policy discussions and decisions. Nonprofit organizations have the ability to give voice to those who might not otherwise be heard and address concerns that others often do not consider. When nonprofits do not speak out, community policies and visions become short-sighted because we miss the important perspectives that only nonprofits can bring to the discussion.
Nonprofit Advocacy: Legalities
Your board may have concerns that nonprofit organizations are prohibited from participating in policy discussions. They are not. While the IRS has specific guidelines regarding nonprofit lobbying activities, such activities are not forbidden. Some grant funders may prohibit the use of their funds for lobbying activities, but this does not exclude your organization from using other funds to engage in lobbying or advocacy. When your board and staff leaders discuss participation in policy conversations, it is important to make the distinction between advocacy (providing information and supporting or recommending positions on specific issues) and lobbying (working to influence specific legislation) to ensure that there aren’t misunderstandings regarding current or proposed activities.
Making the Connection
It’s important that your board members understand the connections between external trends and policy decisions and the organization’s core work. Consider setting aside time at each board meeting to discuss the impact of policies and trends on your organization and the people it serves. Staff can provide support information for these conversations, but these discussions should take advantage of the different perspectives that board members bring to the table. If board members begin to conflate their own policy perspectives with the perspectives of the organization, the chair should bring the discussion’s focus back to the impact that trends and policies have on the organization and its mission.
As board members develop a deeper understanding of the policies and trends affecting the organization, they can be better advocates in the community for its work. If your organization has public policy guidelines, make sure board members understand these. If your organization does not have such guidelines, the board should draft an advocacy policy to provide guidance for staff and board members. The policy should include the criteria and process used to determine advocacy positions and identify spokespeople for those positions. The policy should also be clear about staff and board members’ abilities to speak out as individuals within the community. As with all policies, your advocacy policy should be succinct and clear, and reviewed by the organization’s attorney.
Some board members may feel more comfortable in an advocacy role than others. As part of your board’s advocacy work, you may want to provide training or opportunities for members to practice speaking about the organization and the community conditions that affect it. Like its other communications, your nonprofit’s advocacy messages should be focused and have a direct link to the organization’s work.
Nonprofit boards tend to be risk averse; speaking out on issues can feel like a very risky act. It’s time for that to change. Our communities rely upon thriving nonprofit organizations. We depend upon their work and expertise. When changes in community conditions, issues, or policies will have a direct impact on that work, nonprofit leaders must speak out. To remain quiet is a serious disservice to the community, to the organization’s mission, and to the people the organization serves.
For more information about ways your nonprofit organization can engage in advocacy work, visit standforyourmission.org.